Home For Teachers Being a “yogi” is not as cool as you think it is

Being a “yogi” is not as cool as you think it is

by Arundhati Baitmangalkar

The word ‘yogi’ is used freely, casually & informally in the western world. It refers to anyone who does yoga. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little or a lot. On day one of trying a yoga pose class, you get called a “yogi”.

Much like if you go to a dance class, you’re a dancer. Or if you run, you’re called a ‘runner’. But there’s more context & nuance to explore here.

My background …

I was born & raised in various parts of Southern India for 27 years. I learned aspects of yoga culturally. But I started a formalized asana & yoga teacher study education much later in life.  Shortly after, I ended up relocating to the US. For the past 9 years, I call Seattle home. I run a yoga studio up here. I created educational yoga content weekly for yoga teachers & enthusiasts through my Let’s talk Yoga podcast, this blog, YouTube channel & my Instagram account.

Surprise or shock?

I had many culture shock moments once I moved to the US. I also noticed many differences between yoga in India & Yoga here in the US. One of the things that stood out to me was that many sacred terms, titles & words were thrown around casually. Without regard, respect, or reverence.

Yogi was one such term.

What does “Yogi” mean?

The word yogi is derived from the root word, yogin. Which in its most basic form means a practitioner of yoga. Yogi is technically male while yogini is female. The earliest references to Yogis can be found in the Rig veda.

Where’s the problem?

The western yoga world has not only a problem of cultural appropriation of yoga. But also, one of oversimplification. Anyone can read the Wikipedia definition of yogi and think they’re one. But there’s more nuance & context that’s missing. To understand this, let’s explore some basic characteristics to call yourself a yogi…

Yogi not a term but a title…

Usually, one is bestowed the title of yogi or yogini. Either by society that acknowledges the spiritual work that a yogi does. Or by one’s Guru. Usually, it’s not a self-given title. So growing up, we were always taught to revere a yogi. Because not everyone can make the journey and sacrifices that a devout yogi chooses to make.

Why I don’t call myself a yogi?

Characteristics of a yogi…

  • A yogi spends a lifetime in the pursuit of the internal goals of yoga.
  • A yogi severs all ties to society. As relationship are seen as an impediment to spiritual realization
  • A yogi gives up all forms of gratification including sensual indulgences
  • A yogi lives with little to no possessions. As the more he has the more he’s stuck in the material world.
  • A yogi lives in the most basic manner. Often with no money & solely on the kindness of others
  • A yogi does severe penance. By that I don’t mean a 2-hour intense asana class
  • A yogi studies the shastras (yogic texts) & is well-versed in all aspects of yoga
  • One has to be deserving of a yogis  time & knowledge.

There’s more. But stating the most basic points of entry to being a yogi.

India is diverse…

Most westerns can’t wrap their head around the vast diversity that exists in India. There are many cultural nuances. Not to forget British colonization – the impact & trauma it had. There was a point in our history, where yogis were deemed “undesirable”. A result of the ‘divide & conquer strategy used by the British to colonize & destroy India. The revival of yoga in India is happening surely post-colonization. But more on this topic another day, if you’re interested.

Can you use the word yogi?

That’s a decision you make. I can only tell you, I don’t call myself a yogi or yogini. Nor do I let others call me a yogi. Because I don’t do one-tenth of the work that yogis do for mankind or for yoga.I also don’t refer to any of my students as yogis either.

It’s not just me, all the teachers I’ve studied with in India & other students – no one called themselves a yogi once in 27 years. Doesn’t that say something?

Yogi alternates that you could use…

Now that you know more, and if you want to do better. Here are some options…

  • Yoga student
  • Yoga practitioner
  • Asana student
  • Asana practitioner
  • Yoga seeker
  • Yoga sadhaka
  • Yoga enthusiast
  • asana teacher
  • Yoga asana instructor
  • Yoga teacher

I bet you can come up with something suitable for you. I hope you got a little more context with this conversation.

If you enjoyed this post, or have questions for me. Leave them in the comments below. And if you have a yoga friend, share this with them.

💖 – Arundhati

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arundhatib May 23, 2016 - 10:38 am

Agreed Pashmi! That’s why in millions there is perhaps one true yogi. Its all about the little things, isnt it?

Gina April 22, 2021 - 8:42 pm

You sum this up very well. Thank you.

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